Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and author of numerous books, addressed the Notre Dame community and visitors on the theme “Building Better than they Knew: Brownson’s Critical, Catholic Appreciation of the American Founders.”   The Orestes Brownson Council and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute co-sponsored his lecture, which was held on Thursday, March 18.

Buried in the crypt of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Notre Dame’s campus, Orestes Brownson was an influential Catholic political philosopher.  Ardently opposed to slavery, he refused to consider himself an abolitionist because some abolition activists believed themselves to be apolitical.

Lawler began with a history of Orestes Brownson, who was born in 1803. He taught himself the classical languages and directed his own education. Lawler explained that Brownson constantly sought the truth about himself, which was made manifest in his multiple religious conversions.

He began as a Presbyterian but was distraught over the division between faith and reason.  He then became a Universalist, but left because he thought it unbiblical to teach that all are saved.  Brownson then fell into the category of a modern secular socialist.  Lawler noted that for the rest of his life Brownson always believed there was “something noble about socialists.” Looking for the truth in everything, Brownson became a Unitarian and then a part of the Transcendentalist movement.

Lawler explained that Brownson’s reading of Aristotle spurred his final conversion to Catholicism. He was attracted intellectually to two Catholic ideas: first, that creation is continually and actively dependent on God, and second, that there is universality of science but a real particularity of the human person and politics.

Brownson taught that all true religion was catholic (meaning universal).  He believed that the real and universal experience of dependence on creation is the source of rights for all people.  A universal, moral limit to the political life exists because people must acknowledge their dependence on God.

Lawler explained that Brownson believed Catholicism would thrive in America because Americans demanded reasons, and Catholics had the reasons and answers for their questions.  Thus, Brownson believed Catholics should never be afraid of questioning or science because, to his mind, an honest search for the truth leads people to Catholicism.

Brownson was not looking for a government that would support Catholicism but rather one that would not hinder the search for truth and Catholicism.  Brownson, therefore, pushed for a freedom in the United States that allowed for pursuit of the truth; he believed this freedom was necessary to discover such a government.

After discussing Brownson’s idea of American Catholicism, Lawler spoke onBrownson’s political ideas.  Brownson taught that America is a territorial democracy because the citizen’s loyalty lies with the fixed land rather than with a single person.

Brownson also taught that “all human beings, because of their limited powers of knowing and loving, need to belong to a particular place.” Thus, the modern political virtue is loyalty, and politics must approach the universal through the particular.

According to Lawler, Brownson believed that the founders of the United States held an incoherent idea of government.  To Brownson’s mind, the idea of sovereign individuals is unsound and incompatible with government because it means that each person has a merely contractual relationship with the government, and obedience is voluntary.  Thus, as a political philosopher, Brownson faced the task of explaining why the United States’ government works so well while its Constitution is founded on Lockean principles of individual sovereignty.

As Lawler suggested, the Articles of the Confederation failed because they were disloyal to this “unwritten constitution.”  Lawler put forward Brownson’s view that “what they [the founders] did was better than what they thought in a way [because] the theory of the founders does not correspond with what they built.”

For more information about Orestes Brownson, read his book The American Republic with an introduction by Dr. Peter Augustine Lawler.  Elliott Marie Argue is a junior studying philosophy and theology, and she loves spring thunderstorms.  Contact her at eargue@nd.edu